Book review: Madd-Addam by Margaret Attwood

Margaret Atwood. Picture: Greg Macvean
Margaret Atwood. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Margaret Atwood’s dystopian trilogy shudders to a satisfyingly dark and dramatic conclusion, says Tom Adair

Madd-Addam by Margaret Attwood

Bloomsbury, 394pp, £18.99

In some previous era Margaret Atwood would surely have melted at the stake, inhaling smoke and sparks. Her writing casts spells. Today she stands poised atop a Babel-tower of books, receiving awards and acclamation.

The sparks (now entirely of her making), weave magic in the minds of millions of readers. She is prolific. Her pen, darts across the page at a speed exceeding the reader’s capacity to follow. Which shouldn’t imply that her work feels unedited, or impetuous. It doesn’t.

In this era of regular editorial slackness, Atwood’s prose is diamond edged and perfectly pitched. Her 50th book is not far off. Meantime, topping her tower of achievements comes the magnificent final instalment of her ambitious “dystopian trilogy”. For readers new to its post-plague world, Atwood provides a four-page synopsis of the two preceding books: Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

The Earth they present has suffered disaster, destruction, anarchy and biochemical change. Newly made bio-beings and mutants inhabit this futuristic world of experimentation (known as Gardener Year Twenty Five) along with a handful of human survivors.

The first two books sprang from sharply different moral outlooks and physical settings. Onyx and Crake bestrode a world of vast corporations researching and making life-changing chemicals, their operations protected by CorpseCorps, the security wing, who kept at bay the rabble in the pleeblands beyond the perimeter.

In the pleebland zone of malls and slums and strip joints roam lawless Painballers. The pleeblands occupy much of The Year of the Flood, which, from its soup of revised genetic permutations arrive, eventually, the gentle, quasi-humanoid Children of Crake, prone to turn blue when ready to mate.

If Oryx and Crake was largely a boys’ tale focused on Glenn (aka Crake), the gene-splicing wizard, and Jimmy the Snowman, the spotlight veered in The Year of the Flood to the female world of much abused Toby, escaping the pleeblands to join the God’s Gardeners, a Christian sect led by Adam One with his several Eves who follow an eco-friendly code.

MaddAddam represents the brilliant culmination of their stories, reprising elements from them through the voices of Toby and Zeb, an ex-member of the Gardeners (and Toby’s secret object of love).

They form the heart of a new, select commune comprising a rump of human survivors, added to which are the often amusing, omni-curious, purring Crakers, exuding their innocence and wonder, fond of singing “an eerie music” and tending Jimmy, unconscious after a fight with marauding Painballers, who, still at large, may have taken captive the long-time missing Adam One.

Alive or dead, Adam One becomes a central presence in the story as Toby (together at last with Zeb), coaxes her lover into remembering his childhood, spent with Adam as sons of the Reverend, a megalomaniac crooked preacher. Adam is groomed to inherit the “fraudchurch”, while street-savvy Zeb takes to online hacking. Together they steal the Reverend’s fraudulent, money-spinning empire and flee with the proceeds.

Zeb’s life is epic in its adventurousness. Raw and raunchy is how he prefers it, laced with the dangers of pursuit, while, still on the inside, Adam takes cover, working on espionage against the big corporations and their CorpseCorps protectors.

Like an ever-tightly-clenched muscle, Zeb’s tale of wanderings through the pleeblands of the Americas – San Francisco, Mexico, Rio – is classically breathless, and reads, as it freewheels, twists and spasms, like a genre within a genre: Zeb killing a bear, wearing its skin while riding a bike, planting clues as he goes to lead his pursuers off track, to make them believe he may be dead.

Though the brothers are parted through much of Zeb’s skin-of-the-teeth existence, they both remain faithful to the strength of that formative bond, and Atwood cleverly gives their relationship a poignant, powerful twist that tests its endurance – while simultaneously gripping the reader and testing the destiny of the plot.

MaddAddam’s twin voices – Zeb’s and Toby’s – are as compelling as their characters are complex. Atwood depicts them both through their own and each other’s eyes. In his brother Zeb’s telling, Adam One transcends his role in The Year of the Flood, becoming a linchpin of the complicated plot. Toby too acquires added richness. But Atwood’s single most telling strategy is the inclusion at the heart of the tale of the Crakers, and in particular, of Bluebeard, the gentle, reflective, inquiring boy-Craker taught by Toby to read and write English.

We watch him learn; we see his sensibility amplified, his heart and mind revealed in ways that shed light on the minds and hearts of those around him.

The novel’s end, in which Bluebeard acquires a piquant wisdom, is ushered-in quickly, involving the Painballers, Zeb playing hero, a possible rescue of Adam One. Toby’s breath is held.

Who lives and who dies becomes less important than the direction the story takes. In its last short chapters it spells out that rarity in fiction – a genuine sense of evolution of the species, and, overwhelmingly, wields the conviction that Atwood’s trilogy eclipses the sum of its parts in ways that could not have been foreseen in the first two books. Oh, yes, and at times it’ll make you laugh. It’s a heady feat.